Minnesota mental health crisis hot line closing Friday

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A widely used hot line for Minnesotans suffering from mental health crises will shut down this Friday because of financial difficulties, ending a service that operated for nearly 50 years and helped about 20,000 people annually.

Canvas Health, the Oakdale-based nonprofit that operates the Crisis Connection hot line, announced Monday it is closing the service because of losses totaling more than $1 million over the past several years, as well as a lack of state funding.

The phone line connects callers with community resources and provides immediate counseling to people who are considering suicide or struggling with urgent mental health problems.

“We are concerned about how this change will affect Minnesotans in crisis,” Canvas Health Chief Executive Matt Eastwood said in a statement. “We regret that making these changes is the only option we have to maintain Canvas Health’s other … services, including providing mental health, substance use, mobile crisis, and emergency social services to those who have the most complex needs in our community.”

Minnesotans in crisis can still call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), though callers will be routed to a call center outside Minnesota. In addition, each county in Minnesota still has its own 24-hour crisis hot line, which provides advice, support and access to “crisis teams” of mental health professionals who can travel to the individual’s home.

Still, the closing of Crisis Connection will leave Minnesota without a single mental health crisis line that covers the entire state. In its absence, callers must navigate a complicated network of county crisis lines, which can be difficult to find. States across the country, from Colorado to Tennessee, have been launching statewide crisis lines to make it simpler for people to get help.

Rebekah, a Crisis Connection crisis counselor in Richfield took a call from a mental health professional who was asking where to send callers in crisis as Crisis Connection is forced to close.  Minnesota mental health crisis hot line closing Friday 9828f 1499721422 08 2B1004131527 2B02SUICIDE071117

Minnesota mental health crisis hot line closing Friday 9828f 35106

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The closing of the Crisis Connection comes as Minnesota health officials are struggling to curb a statewide increase in suicides, which in 2015 reached the highest level since the state began tracking them in the early 1900s. Minnesota recorded 726 suicides for 2015, up from 686 in the prior year.

The increase was largely driven by a sharp rise in suicides among men, particularly white men ages 25 to 34, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

‘Losses were unsustainable’

Canvas Health rescued the crisis hot line in 2010, buying the money-losing venture and immediately setting out to modernize the operation by adding more professional mental health counselors and upgrading the call center technology.

Yet the program never received enough money from contracts — including those from state and county agencies and private therapists — to cover the rising number of calls for help.

“The number of calls overwhelmed the dollars paid,” Eastwood said. “The losses were unsustainable.”

Eventually, Canvas Health board members became concerned that the losses, which have totaled $100,000 to $300,000 a year, were draining money and resources away from the agency’s other mental health services and were making it impossible to pay raises to its existing staff. So last year and this spring, executives with Canvas Health, as well as supporters in the community, went to the Legislature for help.

But in a legislative session marked by nearly half-a-billion dollars in social-service spending cuts, the agency’s pitch failed.

Starting Friday, callers who dial the Crisis Connection main number will be routed to a voice recording that will advise them to go to their local emergency room or call 911.

“We had really hoped that the state would see this as a vital element of our safety net,” Eastwood said. “But if they don’t, then we need to accept that and move on.”

Mental health advocates expressed concern that people struggling with severe depression and thoughts of suicide may attempt to call the Crisis Connection number after Friday and be discouraged by the automated recording.

“People who are struggling with their mental health want to talk to a real person,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota. “We don’t necessarily need more people showing up at the emergency room, especially if the crisis can be handled in another way.”

Canvas Health said it is encouraging organizations that distribute the Crisis Connection number to remove it from all printed materials, websites and other communications.

Twitter: @chrisserres